Sundance veteran Gregg Araki returned to the festival this year with his tenth feature film, Kaboom, a colorful and over-sexed romp that reconfirms what we’ve known all along: The cult icon’s tripped out movies are over the top, singular in vision, and full of fresh raw vitality. What’s more, despite being in his 50s, Araki remains a voice for youth and perhaps more importantly, a commanding advocate for the revision of strident sexual categorizations that enchain them.
In his latest genre-bending adventure that’s as offbeat and hysterical as it is thrilling and apocalyptic—think Donnie Darko’s hyperstylized, freewheeling, and pop culture savvy counterpart—Smith (Thomas Dekker), an ambisexual college freshman, is plagued by recurring nightmares about an enigmatic red haired girl, which sparks a knotty conspiracy alluding to the world’s end—that is, when he’s not busy hooking up with a female friend or lusting over his gorgeous yet dim surfer roommate.
Anthem interviewed Araki in New York City in advance to Sundance, and also caught up with the director and his cast at Chefdance, the festival’s annual dinner series, to toast the premiere of Kaboom (photos from the event in the gallery).
Kaboom opens in New York City at the IFC Center on January 28 with a national rollout scheduled for February.
I saw Kaboom at Cannes last year when it had its world premiere and fell madly in love with it.
Did you see it at the press screening or the public screening?
I saw it at the press screening.
You should’ve gone to the public screening! I’ve been telling people that the public screening was the most amazing screening in the universe; the public screening at the Palais was the highlight of my entire life and career. That whole night I was thinking, “This cannot be happening.” But it’s like, “Oh. You were there, so this actually did happen.” I think the press screening went over really well, too, but it’s press. It’s a bunch of cynical press people!
Could you go into more detail about your Cannes experience and screening the film inside the Palais?
Smiley Face had been in the Directors Fortnight in 2007 so I had been before, but I was never part of the main selection. When I found out that I got into the main selection, I told my friends, “To see this little movie that I made on that screen, it’s an award in itself.” We had the Saturday midnight slot, which is a super coveted one—Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting and Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell screened there. Before the movie started, I told the cast, “Sometimes they boo movies at Cannes, so you just need to be prepared.” I was worried because the movie had never screened to the public before. One of the kids [cast members] turned to me before the screening and said, “If they start to boo, I’m going to cry.” [Laughs] So we were all sitting there kind of terrified. It’s so much pomp! The place reeks of history and it’s where cinema was born, you know? I was thinking, “If I have to speak right now, I’m not gonna to be able to do it.” Luckily, I didn’t have to because they just walk you into the theater in this very ostentatious manner and you take your seat. And when the film ended, we got a standing ovation that just went on and on to the point where we were like, “Do we just stand here and wave forever or can we leave?”
So how did Kaboom come about in the first place?
Originally, Kaboom was intended to be a TV series that felt very much like the film Mulholland Drive in the sense that I wanted it to be long stories with subplots. But over the course of several years in development, it turned into a movie.
I brushed up on The Doom Generation last night. I can’t believe they have the entire film up on YouTube as a single clip!
I know! You can watch anything on YouTube now. It’s a little scary.
I’d forgotten how dark that film is even though you cut the tension with some funny moments throughout the film. Your recent output has been more lighthearted and there’s a lot of frivolity there. What caused this noticeable shift in tone in your films?
I’ve been talking about this a lot today. The Doom Generation to me is a much darker movie; it’s sort of my Nine Inch Nails kind of movie. I think I was angrier and more angst-ridden back then, but I’m older now. I’m wiser and more centered. I think I’m more secure in who I am and what I do. I think it’s natural for you to get older and become more comfortable in your own skin, you know? When I made The Doom Generation, I was in my late 20s and much more anxious. I didn’t have the same sense of self or security that I have now. My movies are very personal to me and they’re all very much like time capsules as they indicate where I am in my life. When I go back and watch one of my old movies, it’s almost like a different person made it. But that’s a good thing; it’s good to change and grow over the years.
Are your films autobiographical at all? Do you inject a lot of your own personal stories and experiences into the screenplays?
It’s funny to say this about Kaboom because it’s such a crazy movie with an outlandish story, but I think it’s the most autobiographical movie I’ve ever made. There are a lot of elements in it that are very close to my own life. I was an undergraduate film student like Smith in the movie. My best friend was an art major just like Stella [Haley Bennett]. My friend and I used to hang out in coffee shops all the time and talk about what happened the day before much like Smith and Stella do in the film. My recollection of that time was so much like what’s found in the movie, you know? There are a lot of scenes in the movie that really resonates with me, like the scene where Smith is in the club watching the band play—that moment is so me.
You studied film at USC, right?
I went to USC for my graduate studies and UC Santa Barbara as an undergrad. That’s actually why Smith goes to a fictional seaside university with seagulls flying around everywhere in the movie.
Were your professors very nurturing of your uncomformist approach to filmmaking?
It’s funny because when I was an undergrad studying film criticism and history, I was very encouraged. It was all very intellectual. I took a class on Godard when I was a senior and it was a huge influence on me as a person, especially at that age. When I went to USC for grad school, the faculty was much less nurturing and more industry orientated, you know? I was really into Punk New Wave music and Godard films. I was very much the artsy outcast. Some of my teachers didn’t like me because they thought I was pretentious and full of shit, basically. At the time, there seemed to be an antagonistic relationship there. At the same time, I learned a lot from it and it helped me figure out what I wanted to do and what I didn’t want to do. The USC system was very much set up like a Hollywood studio, but it’s good to run into that kind of opposition when you’re trying to find your voice.
One of the things that I really admire about your work is that they’re all unmistakably “a Gregg Araki film.” You know exactly what you’re getting yourself into.
Again, like Smith in Kaboom, that’s just the way that I was brought up. I was brought up on old school auteur cinema like Hitchcock, the Pantheon, and Howard Hawks. The directors are the authors of their films and every director has their own distinct voice. That, to me, is what cinema is. That’s what I was taught.
Do you find that it’s easier to get your films financed now that you have a lot of notoriety in the industry?
It’s always difficult and it never gets easier. It’s sad, but true. It actually seems to get harder and harder! Movies like Kaboom are small and really offbeat, you know what I mean? You can’t really put them in a box and go, “It’s gonna be this year’s Juno.” It’s really difficult to make movies like this, find distribution, and get people to see it. That’s why I’m here right now banging the drum! [Laughs]
Let’s talk about this amazing cast that you pooled together for Kaboom because they’re all fresh faces with bright futures ahead of them.
We were fortunate to have amazing casting directors who did such an amazing job. We read dozens and dozens of actors for this, basically every great young actor out there. And all the actors in this film won their parts fair and square. One of the big pet peeves that I have when I watch movies is when everybody in it sort of looks the same. It’s like, “Is that Tim? Dick? Harry?” All the actors in this movie—even the ones that aren’t on screen for very long—really make an impression. They all created such a vivid portrait of their characters and I was so thrilled. Juno Temple still hasn’t seen the movie, so I’m really excited about her coming to Sundance. A lot of the cast who haven’t seen the film will be there, so it’ll be a lot of fun.
We’re actually featuring Haley Bennett during Sundance as well. What was it about her in particular that caught your eye?
I love her to death! She’s such a movie star. The camera just loves that girl. Do you remember the scene where she’s in the art studio working on her weird sculptures and the lights start flickering? While we were shooting that scene, I remember telling my DP, “She reminds me of an old-timey Hitchcock heroine.” There’s something about that moment that’s so Hitchcock to me; she’s like a Hitchcock ingénue. I just love Haley so much and I love her character in the movie. I also love her crazy outfits!
What was your approach to the visual style for the film? It’s very vibrant and the colors are very meticulously choreographed. Did you have specific reference points?
I definitely discussed this with the DP and the designers before we started shooting. I pulled a lot of influences from pop culture, advertising, photography, and fashion. I wanted the film to have this high-density color aesthetic. I wanted it to be the opposite of drab and the opposite of reality. I wanted all the kids in the movie to look like movie stars with this crazy glam lighting. The DP, Sandra Valde-Hansen, did such an amazing job. There are so many beautiful shots in the movie that just takes my breath away. When we watched the movie at Cannes, I was literally saying, “Oh my god. I can’t believe I’m seeing this because it’s so amazing.”
There were so many shots in this film that I wanted to print out and mount on the wall.
That’s literally what I told the DP. I told her, “I want every frame in the movie to be suitable for framing. You should be able to take out every frame and put it on the wall.” And she pretty much succeeded!
You always come up with amazing film titles that are succinct, memorable, and pack a powerful punch. How did you come up with “Kaboom”?
“Kaboom” is one of my favorite titles of all of my movies. It says so much, you know? Originally, the movie was called The End of All Things, something very apocalyptic and biblical. It was a bigger and more epic title. “Kaboom” just worked better; it really captures the spirit of this movie.